Even when she’s talking about her first-ever panic attack, Lillian Ahenkan’s voice is filled with sunshine. “I didn’t even know what anxiety was until 2020,” she says, followed by a healthy chortle. “And I was like ‘You know what? This is not worth it.’
“I loved the role that the perception of me played for people, but not at the expense of myself.”
Exactly what that perception is can be a complicated matter. The one-word explanation for Ahenkan’s place in Australian public life is probably “influencer” – it’s a word she doesn’t shy away from herself. Last year she was awarded “Australian Social Star of 2020” by E! Magazine and “Young Entrepreneur of 2020” by Instagram Australia. But influencer also doesn’t quite cover it.
Better known by her Instagram handle @Flex.Mami, at 26 Ahenkan’s career already spans a brief stint in public relations, which she left in 2014 to pursue full-time DJing; a turn as an MTV VJ; podcasting (her first show, Bobo and Flex, has over two million downloads); several product lines; and most recently a book, The Success Experiment, which she’s been writing for the past two and a half years. The book will not be out until July, but is already #9 on Booktopia’s best seller chart; the title, like its author, seems to have self-actualised.
At the start of our interview, I propose a different way to describe who she is and what she does: “I think you’re Australia’s Chrissy Teigen.” For that, I’m rewarded with a long, joyful chuckle: “I’ll take it.” Like Teigen, her portfolio of projects spans everything from food (a range of chocolates) and design (a furniture line) and publishing (a set of conversation cards, three podcasts and the book) to straight up posting #sponcon.
But more than that, through social media – particularly Instagram, where she has more than 133,000 followers – Ahenkan manages to convey a Teigen-esque image of herself as simultaneously authentic and aspirational. Her posts are a mix of slickly produced, colourfully styled photographs, memes and videos that express seemingly total candour about everything, from systemic racism to the joy of sex toys. She also engages her followers with prompts like “What were you teased for as a child that’s trendy now?”; “What’s the difference between a toxic trait and a flaw?” These questions have prompted incredibly open – and occasionally traumatic – answers from her devoted audience.
“Being the self you want to be in the form that you’d like best is a difficult step for a lot of people,” Ahenkan says. Being someone who “fits into that fantasy” is “the aspiration, more so than the trinkets and the lifestyle and all the other things.”
This is a tough needle to thread, but Ahenkan manages it with self-awareness and sheer likability. For instance, for over a year now our relationship has consisted almost entirely of me watching her Instagram Stories, and her rebuffing my repeated requests that she write a column for this newspaper. Yet, in my head, I sometimes imagine we’re close friends. This, it turns out, is a common problem.
“I’m really not in positions where I can go into a space and people don’t already have context for me, and that context – as I’m discussing in therapy – acts as a barrier to real connection,” she says. “People feel as though because … they’ve read something I’ve written, or watched something that I’ve recorded, that they know me.” Those same people might treat consuming her content as a way of connecting, “when in reality, I feel like, ‘Or you could just ask me how I am.’”
You can’t seek help from the place that you were harmed. That’s how I feel about the internet sometimes.
Last year, those feelings intensified. The restrictions of 2020 “illuminated to me that I was looking for a lot of validation. I couldn’t generate wellness from within.” On top of that, her openness on her experiences with racism and white supremacy made her a powerful symbol – despite her own wishes. “I speak at length about racism because I don’t have the privilege not to,” she says, adding that her Ghanian heritage has a huge impact on her lived experience. “It impacts what I’m trying to communicate … what I’m trying to do … the permissions I have to be in certain spaces.”
“[That] gets packaged as ‘she’s doing activism and it’s odd because she’s also doing capitalism,’” she says, in response to a question I ask her about doing both things at once. “But the only thing I’m doing is being, and monetising, myself.” The idea that she’s an activist is just another projection – albeit a positive one, from my end.
Ultimately, the weight of it all became too much. “I felt like I was becoming a receptacle to everyone’s issues, projections, thoughts and needs … I don’t want to seek validation or refuge from strangers online who are also the cause of my frustration,” she realised. “You can’t seek help from the place that you were harmed. That’s how I feel about the internet sometimes.”
So after years of serving as a proxy-therapist for thousands of strangers, she turned to actual therapy. “I’m like, let me be soft. I’m a fragile baby girl. I’m a hedgehog! A little baby platypus! … I can’t be playing the role of protector for a thousand strangers who happen to resonate with my identity. Protector of women! Protector of Black people! Protector of Black women! No! It’s too much! Not my business!
“I want to be protected!” She says this with warmth in her voice. “Who’s protecting me? Therapy!”
Even before the anxiety hit, Ahenkan was “already planning to pivot away from commodifying myself, and the benefits of the influencer lifestyle. Because I realised that it’s not sustainable … I didn’t want it to drop me before I dropped it.”
This doesn’t mean deleting her account, just diversifying what she does with her time. Another step in this direction is her newish podcast, Flex’s Semi-Factual History Lessons, which is not about her or her life but a way to have “deep and complex discussions” through the lens of history “in a fun and light way.” She will be taping a live episode about birth control pills at the Sydney Opera House during All About Women on 8 March and says, “I don’t want to be sad after this podcast taping, I want people to laugh and see the humour in history and education.”
That’s something she feels strongly about – “to do my life a service by trying to create pleasure in all forms. Or at least create boundaries so that enemies of my pleasure are further way.”
“Maybe it’s my entitlement schema,” she jokes but, “I really do think that I’m entitled to feeling the best.” She explains the philosophy of “big enjoyment”. “It’s a very well-known phrase in Ghanian and Nigerian and a lot of West African culture. To prioritise pleasure, to prioritise enjoyment, is culturally what we do as West Africans. It’s a whole thing. And it’s really hard to try to find the words to explain what that looks like in a very western context, because I don’t see it. Big Enjoyment is not a very western thing to do. It’s like Big Suffering. Big Obligation.”
Contractually, Ahenkan is not allowed to talk about the other Big project she has in the works; but paparazzi photographs have all but confirmed her presence on the 2021 season of Big Brother. Instead she talks in hypotheticals, saying that her recent shifts in thinking could lead her to go on a mainstream reality television show, almost as “a thought experiment”.
It must have been confronting for someone so used to controlling the edit, I suggest. “What’s really interesting is I too thought I had control over my self-image and how I was perceived based on the fact that I was the one curating that narrative – but no … [people] would much rather project a fantasy on to me.
“You could be what you want, say what you want, do what you want, in a really earnest way, and it can still come across as tainted in the eyes of someone else ... It was a lot, but I learned some things. So thank you to that hypothetical reality show that I was never on.”
• Flex Mami is recording a live episode of Flex’s Semi-Factual History Lessons at All About Women on Sunday 7 March, at the Sydney Opera House